They Wove for Horses

- February 7, 2012

“Diné Saddle Blankets at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture…”

An exhibition that highlights both the textile-weaving proficiency of the Diné weavers, who produced complex saddle blankets for all occasions, and the design skills of Diné silversmiths, who created dazzling headstalls of silver and turquoise, opens on March 25, at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture on Museum Hill.

The show, which will be on long-term view at the museum, includes saddle blankets that date from 1860 to 2002 and are arranged by weaving methods: tapestry weave, two-faced double weave and twill weaves of diagonal, diamond and herringbone patterns. By using a variety of warp and weft yarns, from natural wool, cotton and angora mohair to unraveled bayeta and Germantown, the weavers of these extraordinary objects added individuality to the everyday and fanciful tapestries they created as utilitarian items for their horses.

Before saddle blankets, sheepskin or angora mohair hides were used as saddle pads and bedrolls. As the Diné acquired domesticated sheep from the Spanish, they began to weave saddle blankets, first in a tufted mohair style. But in time, plain-weave tapestry blankets evolved into geometric motifs, and designs ranged from simple, as in banded patterns, to complex, as in the various twills and double- and two-faced weaves.

The horse trappings on exhibit reveal the great pride that Diné horsemen took in their horses and how they adorned them for ceremonial and social events. The Diné first learned how to manufacture saddles and bridles from neighboring cultures and their proficiency quickly surpassed that of their mentors. That devotion resonates still, as the horse remains a viable, living force in Diné life today.

Early 19th-century accounts indicate that bridles used by Diné horsemen at the time consisted of tanned leather embellished with silver ornaments. These likely were obtained from outside sources until silversmithing techniques became part of the Diné repertoire. Atsidi Sani (ca. 1830-ca. 1918) often is referred to as one of the first of the Diné to learn the trade in the mid-19th century. Soon after, the Diné surpassed their peers, becoming proficient in crafting and trading horse trappings and renowned for creating elaborate harnesses with silver headstalls and bits.

When the Diné obtained handmade saddles, improvements again were fast to come. They replaced simple string cinches with elaborately hand-woven straps with designs as intricate as those on saddle blankets and throws. The cinches, whether woven before being attached to the cinch ring or woven on the ring from the start, often were of hand-spun and hand-plied yarn that would reduce chafing. For added comfort, hand-woven saddle blankets were devised to go under saddles and provide padding so that cinches could shift as horses navigated diverse terrain. Hand-woven saddle throws were more for show, basically fancy blankets placed over saddles for social events.

Before the arrival of the horse, foot travel was a constant challenge for the Diné and other tribes in the vast Southwest. When horses were introduced to the region by Spaniards in the 16th or early 17th century, the lifestyle and culture of the Diné dramatically changed. Horses provided mobility and increased opportunities for hunting, trade, raiding and advancement.

When Spanish colonizers retreated during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, they left behind thousands of Spanish-bred horses – primarily Spanish barbs – in the Rio Grande area. The Diné and other tribes increased their herds and, for men, owning horses meant added prestige, as well as an important means to better provide for and defend families or extended clan families.

The Diné honor the horse in traditional stories, songs, and ceremonies. And, the heritage of horsemanship continues to thrive on the reservation, alongside more recent interests such as cowboying and rodeo. Today, the fruits of early innovations in the artistry of trappings, from bridles to blankets, are the very foundation of many Diné artists' livelihood.